Killing It

- By Elis­a­beth Brier

Ryan Ho­gan and Der­rick Smith are cash­ing in by sell­ing im­mer­sive mur­der mys­ter­ies in monthly sub­scrip­tion boxes.

RYAN HO­GAN and DER­RICK SMITH are cash­ing in on the pan­demic’s deadly com­bi­na­tion of bore­dom and screen fa­tigue by sell­ing im­mer­sive mur­der mys­ter­ies pack­aged in monthly sub­scrip­tion boxes.

IIt’s Satur­day night in Uxbridge, Mas­sachusetts, and Heather Ni­coll, a 31-year-old graphic de­signer, is in­ves­ti­gat­ing a mur­der. Along with a close friend, she rum­mages through a box of old news­pa­per clip­pings, fi­nan­cial records and po­lice re­ports as she at­tempts to solve the grisly death of Jake Mor­gan, the lead singer of Just4­fun, a fic­ti­tious boy band. Every month Ni­coll, along with 100,000 oth­ers, pays around $30 to Bal­ti­more-based startup Hunt A Killer to re­ceive a new in­stall­ment of the game. It will take a full “sea­son” of six boxes, cost­ing $180, to get to the bot­tom of Mor­gan’s death. “I don’t mess around when it comes to crack­ing these cases,” says Ni­coll, who tracks her re­sults with a pen­cil in a bin­der. “I’m fully ad­dicted to in­ves­ti­gat­ing things now.”

Hunt A Killer is played al­most en­tirely off­line—and that’s largely the point. “There is not a bet­ter time that’s needed to put your phone down, get off Twit­ter and get off all these other de­vices,” says CEO Ryan Ho­gan, 36, a for­mer U.S. Naval of­fi­cer. “We’re go­ing crazy right now. We all need to be able to detox.”

Last year, Ho­gan’s com­pany, which he co­founded with his child­hood friend Der­rick Smith, 37, gen­er­ated $27 mil­lion in rev­enue by sell­ing sub­scrip­tions, pre­mium “all-in-one” edi­tions and col­lec­tions of pre­vi­ous in­stall­ments (start­ing at $140 for six boxes). The pan­demic is pro­vid­ing a big boost: This year Hunt A Killer should book about $50 mil­lion in rev­enue and hopes to turn a profit for the first time. The two founders own 85%, worth just over $65 mil­lion.

The duo are the lat­est ben­e­fi­cia­ries of a boardgame boom­let that dates to the mid-1990s, when a com­plex Ger­man strat­egy game called Set­tlers of Catan first be­came pop­u­lar on Amer­i­can col­lege cam­puses. Catan has sold more than 30 mil­lion copies world­wide and still gen­er­ates north of $100 mil­lion in rev­enue an­nu­ally some 25 years af­ter its ini­tial re­lease. Over­all, Euromoni

tor ex­pects sales of board games in North Amer­ica to in­crease from $3.4 bil­lion in 2019 to about $4.1 bil­lion in 2024.

“Growth was ex­plo­sive for games the first half of this year,” says Stephanie Wissink, who tracks the in­dus­try for Jef­feries. “The cat­e­gory was up 37% this year. I’ve worked in this space for two decades and have never seen that.”

Hunt A Killer dates back to a failed ap­parel com­pany called War­wear that Ho­gan started with his wife while he was still in the Navy. Stuck with $100,000 worth of un­sold T-shirts, in 2011 Ho­gan teamed up with Smith to stage a se­ries of hor­ror-themed 5K races called Run for Your Lives (par­tic­i­pants fled zom­bies planted around the course). That com­pany went bank­rupt, but the ex­pe­ri­ence started the duo down an en­tre­pre­neur­ial path that by 2016 had mor­phed into the first in­stall­ments of Hunt A Killer.

Work­ing from Smith’s base­ment, the co­founders did ev­ery­thing them­selves, from de­sign­ing the games to pack­ing and shipping them. By 2017, the com­pany had 25,000 sub­scribers and a cult fol­low­ing on Face­book. “Covid cer­tainly ac­cel­er­ated our path,” Ho­gan says, “but we aren’t a Covid-based com­pany.”

Next up: re­tail. In Septem­ber, Hunt A Killer de­buted a ver­sion of its flag­ship game for $30 on Ama­zon. The same prod­uct will be avail­able at Tar­get in Oc­to­ber. Brand col­lab­o­ra­tions with Lion­s­gate, based on the Blair Witch movies, and with Simon & Schus­ter (Nancy Drew books) are also in the works.

“If we can make these amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ences that pro­vide es­capism and im­merse you in a story,” Ho­gan says, “there’s just noth­ing greater.”


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